Virginia Highland Books
Market: Atlanta, Georgia
Sub Category: Author Events, Book Shop, Book Signings, Children’s Books & Gifts, Fiction Books, Non-Fiction Books, Vinyl Events
Other Awards: Voted Best of Atlanta Magazine in 2021 and 2022
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Sandy Huff, Owner of Virginia Highland Books
The community has quickly embraced Virginia Highland Books, located a stone’s throw from the Virginia Avenue and N. Highland Avenue intersection, even before its soft launch.
“The amount of interest is very reassuring,” owner Sandy Huff said. “Bookstores have to have neighborhood support to succeed. So far, people seem excited so that’s a step in the right direction!”
Huff, a long-time Intown resident with a background in event planning, public relations and marketing, first turned to the American Booksellers Association and other indie bookstore owners for guidance.
“They told me who to call. What to do. How to start. It’s a really cooperative industry,” Huff said.
Indie bookstores operate on thin margins due to set publisher prices and compete with juggernaut Amazon (willing to sell books at a loss) and e-books. On the bright side, print sales rose by 8 percent in 2020, as more readers seemed to prefer to a physical book to a screen.
Once word got out that an indie bookstore was coming to the neighborhood, volunteers, local artists, and college students looking for work began to contact Huff. Retired volunteer Ellen Kempner was ready to “do whatever Sandy needs help with” from stenciling to stocking shelves.
“As a lifelong reader, a bookstore is my happy place – especially one right around the corner!” Kempner said. “I see helping a local business succeed as helping the entire neighborhood.”
Enter this new happy place and you’ll find the fiction section on the right. Young adult and children’s books with a cozy nook for story time are on the left.
Head down the central staircase decorated with author names stenciled by Kempner to browse nonfiction books and soon-to-be-stocked vinyl records.
“There’s also space downstairs for gatherings – book signings, book clubs, the skies the limit.” Huff said. She plans to start scheduling events and meetings in August.
As folks reconnect over a good read at Virginia Highland Books, Huff encourages the community to help curate her inventory.
“I want to have as much input from the neighborhood as possible on what they’re reading and giving reviews,” Huff said. Staff will also be providing book recommendations.
For added flexibility, order books online (vahibooks.com) to pick-up in store or ship direct. Huff is also selling other nonbook items, like readers, blue light glasses, and puzzles for starters.
Rather than selling used books, Virginia Highland Books will collect and donate used books to local nonprofits. The first recipient is Hillside, which provides mental health services to 700 families a year, including residential treatment for 70 children at its VaHi campus.
“A good young adult series, fun, quirky, diverse and perhaps aspirational would be a great suggestion [to donate],” said Alison Jarvis, Hillside Atlanta Development Director. “A child can enjoy a book and then can read others in the series. Having these things to enjoy when they are very anxious or depressed can help them cope and alleviate stress.”
The bookstore will also display local art on a rotating basis. First up is travel photographer, Jonathan McKown (jonathanmckown.com) whose images include landscapes, wildlife, people and historical sites. In addition to large, framed pictures, pre-matted smaller photos will also be for sale.
With all of these community connections, Virginia Highland Books is helping the neighborhood get back to its roots. In the 1980s, there were five indie bookstores on less than a one mile stretch of N. Highland Avenue from the U.S. Post Office to Plaza Drugs. One of the shops, Bealer’s Books, was actually in the Virginia Highland Books footprint.
Mark Stevens, former co-owner of The Science Fiction and Mystery Bookshop located on corner of N. Highland and St. Charles Avenue in the 1980s, has some heartfelt advice for Huff.
“You’ve got to be dedicated,” Stevens said. “You’re not doing it to get rich, but you do it for all of the other reasons. It’s fun. It’s a labor of love. It’s a meeting place for minds. If it’s going to be done anywhere – it can be done there.”
Huff shares that passion. What excites her the most about this venture? You guessed it – the books!
“I probably read about 100 books a year,” Huff said. She’s hoping her neighbors will too after visiting her bookstore.
Virginia Highland Books is located at 1034 N. Highland Avenue. For more details, visit vahibooks.com and @vihibooks on Instagram. Be sure to pick up a print copy of Atlanta Intown when you’re in the store, too!
About Virginia Highland Books
I’ve always loved libraries,” says longtime Garden Hills resident Sandy Huff. “I find them such relaxing spaces. And I love looking at all the books. It’s the opposite of laundry.”
A stay-at-home mother for the last 15 years, the 56-year-old Huff has created her own library of sorts. She recently opened Virginia Highland Books in the spot where clothing store Empire South used to be, near the corner of Highland and Virginia avenues.
Explaining how the bookstore came to be, Huff says it was the second week of January, and she happened to be in Virginia-Highland buying a 2021 calendar at Paper Source. “I saw the ‘For Sale’ sign in the window [of the space where the store now sits],” she says, and it immediately caught her attention. “I used to live two blocks from that corner and always loved the walkability of the neighborhood.”
Huff isn’t a newbie to the world of bookstores. When her family went on vacation, they always found a local indie bookshop to explore. She also worked part-time at B. Dalton Bookseller when she and her husband, an attorney, first moved to Atlanta. “I tried to get a job at Oxford Books first,” she says of the venerable retailer, once the largest independent bookstore in the Southeast before closing in 1997. “They required you to take a 16-page test about literature,” says Huff, “and I did not pass.”
After she acquired the site for her store, things started rolling quickly. “It’s been fast and furious,” admits Huff. As breakneck as it’s been, though, the pandemic has resulted in delays of shipments of necessary supplies, such as bookshelves, which in turn pushed back the opening. “My goal was to open on June 5, which is my birthday,” says Huff, “but that didn’t happen.” The pandemic has also put her plans for book readings, storytime, author signings and book clubs on hold until the fall. But the hardest parts of the process for Huff have been picking out which books to carry (“I wanted to order them all”) and culling through all the requests for employment she got after posting that she was looking for help on Nextdoor (“I wanted to hire them all”). In the end, she ended up with around 10,000 books and 12 employees.
The two-story, 4,000-square-foot shop is open seven days a week and houses not just books, but puzzles, gifts, reading glasses and the like. Soon, the selection will include vinyl in a small section set aside for music. Huff’s ultimate hope is for Virginia Highland Books to become a neighborhood hangout, with customers dropping by nearby Perc to get a cup of coffee or a bite to eat at the newly opened Doughnut Dollies and heading to the store for a leisurely browse of its vast inventory. “I’ll consider us a success if we simply break even and provide a welcoming spot for the community,” says Huff.
The day-to-day trials of running a bookstore will not diminish her love of books, Huff says. An avid reader, she says she finishes about 100 books a year. “There’s so much potential there,” she says. “It’s so exciting to get into a new book.”
VIRGINIA HIGHLAND BOOKS
1034 N. Highland Ave. N.E.